Life Before Debt and the ripped cloak

Reposted from my Interhuman blog:

Last weekend I attended and presented The Book of Debts at Life Before Debt, a conference organized by the Jubilee Debt Campaign and hosted at SOAS.

I have spent days now trying to get my head around how to communicate the density and complexity of what I learnt there, through a line up of inspiring speakers and delegates alike.

I felt at the start of the project that debt was like a mountain and I had a teaspoon. Now it feels like a mountain range! And the highest mountain in view at the weekend, and percolating since then, has been the issues raised around unjust debts, both sovereign (nation-based, institution-led) and household.

Alinah and The Book@LifeBeforeDebt, SOAS, March 201
Alinah and The Book@LifeBeforeDebt, SOAS, March 2013

I have spent a few years now wondering how to get past and shift the perception of debt as merely a financial issue, which can be a barrier to engaging with the project on first sight (I don’t owe money, or if I do I’m not telling you about it – I’m not guilty!arg!). Now, finally I was in the company of 400 other people who not only take the broader social, moral, political, psychological context of debt deeply seriously, but also have a lot of specialist knowledge of it. The emphasis was of course on economic justice and ways to work towards this, so this post focuses on what came up and struck me most on that front, and uses the language of that sector, which is dramatic, and provocative (and rightly so). Yes, there was plenty to be depressed about. Debt peril, debt slavery, financial colonization, mounting household debt and mental health statistics.

But also it was an amazing space for gathering intelligence, feeling others commitment globally to work on a collective change and there were a number of solutions which came up too. At the closing, the incredible Njoki Njehu, grassroots organizer, ecological activist and women’s advocate of Jubillee South, gifted us with the story of the hummingbird gathering raindrops to help put out the forest fire, (see clip here), which was a really good tale to take away for mitigating what could feel like an insurmountable task ahead for those engaged in challenging the fundamentals of the system, such as the way money is created – like the extraordinary Ann Pettifor who just published ‘Just Money’, another for my list to read..) . Or just for facing and dealing with what is happening right now in society and how to approach and be gentler with one’s own self-expectations. As the keeper of a Book of Debts, at this time in history, I need to hear more poetic nuggets like this, to avoid overwhelm and to remind myself in my own small but focused role in opening up dialogues with those I meet through the project and who engage with it on whatever level.

There will be a film edited from the day, which I will link to when it’s up and will do a far better job than I can of capturing the day..

I want to mention a few people though, like New York social and cultural analyst /activist/writer/lecturer Andrew Ross, focused on household debt, of Strike Debt and the inspirational Rolling Jubilee as well as the Strike Student Debt movement in the US, who has just written a book called Creditocracy, presented here , so eloquently coining phrases and raising questions that I could not scribble fast enough, like :

The struggle over debt is the primary conflict of our times.

Money comes into being as interest bearing debt, it does not exist hitherto. (Something the Bank of England only recently admitted to)

Wall street predatory lending is an extreme form of usury.

What the system wants from us is to perform a lifetime of debt service …

Debt is the battle line for consent. We need to customise strategies, and reverse the morality of debt to hold creditors to account…

The debt trap has migrated from the global south to the global north…

How does democracy survive when you are on the road to debt serfdom?

At the opening he picked up on the questioning by Rowan Williams (former Arch bishop of Canterbury and author of some excellent speeches and articles on economy and morality) of the ‘we should always pay our debts’ morality (or psychological patterning) around debt which enables irresponsible lending to take place, lenders to remain silent and our entire system to now be built apon debt, with – as his students put it ‘ Our futures foreclosed’ . Nyoki Nyehu, questioned the concept of forgiveness – and charity – in relation to socio- economic, unjust or odious debts.

They said it should be a no-no in this context as this implies there is something to forgive, a negative value, setting up a hierarchy, as then if your debt is forgiven, you owe the person who forgives you It is not empowering and it adds a layer of indebtedness and the idea of payback. We could explore this is other areas of human behaviour and relationship too. 

They suggested the same could be said of charity (my Caritas ears pricked up!) ‘Charity suggests a judgement about the moral worth of the individual – that they need to be in need to be helped’ i.e. those humans don’t have automatic right to the basics of life. I want it look at this more.

Rowan Williams cited the principles of Leviticus –which he noted have been totally and utterly ignored and subverted in real terms in our society – such as:

‘Do not seek profit from another’s misery’ i.e. don’t manage lending to someone in such a way as to deprive the debtor his or her essential survival.

Don’t lend aggressively – i.e. making money make money

‘The land does not belong to anyone. The land is on loan to you by God – you are already indebted to it. You trade its use not the land itself (cf irresponsible development of land based on monetisation not needs of local communities)

Ownership is never absolute in a world where you are dependent on what you haven’t made

He talked about the spiral of asymmetry re debt and credit and that all we can do are ‘limit the spiral’. He also mentioned the prohibitions of unlimited collateral, i.e. ‘Don’t take as security for a debt something that someone else needs, that is, don’t take the cloak that covers the back’ So then I thought of course of St Martin.. That will come later too, as I draw on this for my Isle Perdu Amiens commission.

He said we have to ask what are the ethics of lending? And question the blindness of creditors to the social and moral effects of debt. He was very succinct, with great gravity and dignity, I like him. I was a bit gutted to learn though that the Church of England pension fund still holds £80k investment in Wonga

My head is spinning simply writing these words. So time to gather some raindrops and check The Book of Debts, which just launched  at Fabrica, Brighton until May 22.

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